Earlier this week, the Internet went into meltdown because pop icon Adele had her hair braided into Bantu knots, a traditional African hairstyle. Accusing her of ‘cultural appropriation’, hordes of the rabid Outraged took to Twitter to vent their spleen, while others leapt to her defence.
Who was right? What the hell is ‘cultural appropriation’ anyway? And why should we care?
Cultural appropriation has become such a politically charged term, and so subjective in its interpretation, that even debating the validity of its meaning risks drawing down the ire of the mob. Nevertheless, I find myself unable to stand on the sidelines – I want to address this issue – and I fully accept that this is my own take on the matter. I have a personal stake in the outcome. In the publishing world, a debate currently rages that speaks to the very heart of what it means to be an author, a debate that seeks to set boundaries on our imaginations within the context of cultural identity.
When we talk about cultural appropriation, what we really mean is cultural misappropriation: the adoption of elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity in a way that is deemed to cause offence. It particularly becomes an issue when the culture engaging in the alleged misappropriation has historically disadvantaged the culture from which it is appropriating. The trouble is that the lines are not only blurred but continually being redrawn as to what might be perceived as offensive.
The Washington Redskins football team has, after years of petitioning, finally agreed to change its name and logo – that of a Native American in feathered headdress. The logo was deemed racist by many in the Native American population, understandably so, given their fraught history with white colonisers.
Blackface is another relatively clear-cut example of cultural misappropriation.
In general, dressing up as ethnic stereotypes, especially in an attempt to ridicule or parody, is a no-no.
Recently, several actors have been criticised for taking on roles outside of their culture. I’m certain Scarlett Johansson intended no offence when portraying an iconic Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell, yet offence was taken. In this instance, historical context is important, given that her casting followed a long line of such perceived slights by Hollywood. In the 1930s, white Swedish-American actor Warner Oland played a Chinese detective named Charlie Chan in no less than sixteen films. In the fifties, John Wayne was given a truly awful makeover to play Genghis Khan. To our modern eyes these images are clearly insensitive, but the truth is that they were disquieting even then, symptomatic of both a cultural and power inequality in Hollywood – and the world at large.
Having said all this, I remain firmly behind the idea that authors – and creative artists, in general – should be allowed to express themselves beyond the bounds of the culture into which they were born. To not have that right would mean that I could never pen a novel populated by white protagonists. I could never set a story in exotic climes, or at least those cultural settings deemed outside of my subcontinental heritage.
But who is drawing the lines here? Who is in charge of what is and isn’t permissible – culturally speaking – for a particular individual or situation? Can sporting a particular hairstyle really cause such terrible offence? Has the worldwide adoption of hip-hop music been detrimental or helpful to the black inner city communities within which it originated? When non-black artists perform such music are they insulting or celebrating black culture?
Everything is about context.
There is, some argue, a fine line between cultural misappropriation and cultural appreciation. After all, in an increasingly interconnected, globalised world, cultures are continually mixing – it’s inevitable that we will see a sharing of cultural ideas, traditions, fashions, symbols, and even language. For me (and many others), this is a good thing, a way for cultures to understand and empathise with each other, and to normalise what at first might seem different or strange. Did you think you were insulting generations of subcontinental cooks the last time you made a curry at home? Of course not!
Debate on the issue has itself become all but impossible, so eager are some to draw battlelines. Cancel culture has stilled the protests of many who might bring a sense of perspective.
I confess, I am fed up with the knee-jerk, hysterical, faux-outrage that continually swamps the Internet. Whilst there are clearly cases of cultural misappropriation that should be called out, other instances are beyond trivial – or deliberately misinterpreted.
Personally, I think that the matter comes down to common sense. We will not all agree on every situation, but by taking a deep breath before reacting, we might better serve the cause of global fraternity.
As far as authors are concerned, I will continue to defend our right to explore any realm of the imagination that we should so choose. If we do our research, if we set out to highlight rather than to denigrate, to depict a particular culture with truth and empathy – warts and all – then we will have fulfilled the tenets of our creed, and should not feel remotely guilty in so doing.
In 2019 Booker-prize winning author Bernardine Evaristo dismissed the concept of cultural appropriation, suggesting that it is ridiculous to demand of writers that they not “write beyond your own culture.”
I could not agree with her more.
The second in a series of three articles on this topic is called Cultural Appropriation: when authors crash and burn and the third is called Cultural Appropriation: when authors get it right.
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My latest novel is Midnight at Malabar House. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.